Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Samantha”

Samantha’s #CBR4 Review #16: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

This book has been reviewed ad infinitum around these parts, so I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to add to the conversation. It is largely worth all the hype, although I guess I will say that I expected and wanted a little bit more from it. Still, a very worthwhile read if you like truly creative and imaginative fiction.

Celia Bowen is the daughter to the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter, and heir to his (very real) magical powers. At a young age, her father binds her to a mysterious competition with a shadowy counterpart.  Essentially, she and her opponent will be representing two different schools of magical thought and practice.  She joins the fantastical  Cirque des Reves (Circus of Dreams) as their illusionist, and the games truly begin.

Let’s just call that the most vague synopsis ever and move on, ok? It would be really difficult to add much more to it without giving a lot away, and frankly, I am not up to the challenge of boiling the creative imagery of this book down to a few sentences. That is the selling feature here: the world (ok, mainly the circus) that Morgenstern has dreamed up is stunningly gorgeous. Within a few chapters, you will want to go to this circus, truly. It’s like a supremely ornate and exquisitely decorated pastry: all spun sugar and delicate detail. Every square inch of the place is wrought with loving craftsmanship, and nothing has been left out. It’s an amazing place, punctuated by amazing performances and a truly superior imagination.

Like a pastry, the Cirque des Reves is beautiful to look at, and delicious for a little while, but it’s ultimately hollow and unfulfilling. As impressive as the circus itself is, the characters and the plot are considerably less so. The characters we encounter, aside from Celia, are all drawn in fairly shallow strokes, with very little in the way of purpose or motivation. Celia’s opponent in the magical game, Marco, has hardly any personality to speak of; I will acknowledge that some part of that is integral to the character, but it doesn’t do much to make him a sympathetic figure. The supporting cast are essentially human extensions of the circus: curiosities left largely unexplained. The main story is actually a love story, but without fully realized characters it’s somewhat difficult to fully invest in the idea, and I found it hard to understand how or why the two individuals in question were, in fact, in love with one another. A secondary plot line, involving a young man named Bailey whose future becomes entwined with that of the Circus, fares a little better in that Bailey himself is a standard trope: a dreamer who wishes to escape his mundane line for a life of excitement. Obviously, the Circus itself can fulfill his fantasies, but in the final tally, exactly how it is supposed to do that is left rather vague.

I really, really wanted to like this book. I didn’t dislike it, exactly, but again, it was like eating something super-tasty but not all that filling. It left me wanting more. It seems to me that if Morgenstern had dialed back on descriptions of the circus (an entire chapter to describe a clock, really?) and put a little bit more of herself into her characters, the end result would be worth twice of what it actually is. She clearly has a great deal of talent, but in the case of The Night Circus, I don’t think that talented was focused in the right directions. There are a lot of great ideas, and sketches for great characters here, but ultimately, more time was spent on the trimmings and trappings, and less on the meat of the thing. Delightful if you have a sweet tooth, but less so if you’re looking for sustenance, I’m afraid.

Samantha’s #CBR4 Review #15: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

Ugh, I’m so behind. I finished Life of Pi at least a month ago now, so please bear with me as I try to remember my impressions of it. As I’m sure we’re all aware, there is a film adaptation of the novel due out around Thanksgiving, and I’m sure that it will be visually stunning, although judging from the trailers I think that they’ve made a fair amount of changes to the story. Not that one can blame them, entirely: Tom Hanks couldn’t even manage to hold interest all by himself on screen for a full movie. Perhaps what he needed was a tiger for a co-star…

Life of Pi tells of the extraordinary adventure of Pi Patel, who survived a shipwreck and spent nearly 300 days aboard a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean. Now, lots of people survive a shipwreck, and, if the lifeboat is well-stocked, maybe a year wouldn’t be that big a deal. But, you see, the ship that sank was not only carrying Pi and his family, but also numerous animals bound for zoos in North America. Initially, Pi is not the only survivor: he is joined in the lifeboat by a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and Bengal tiger. Needless to say, it’s not very long before Pi and the tiger are the last ones standing. The story, according to a friend of Pi’s, will “make you believe in God,” but really it’s a testament to Pi’s faith, knowledge, ingenuity, and will to survive.

Parts of the novel are stronger than others. There’s the theological bit, which makes up the entire first part of the story, before Pi ever sets foot on a ship. Pi’s Indian, so he’s technically Hindu, but, as a child, he finds himself drawn to Christianity and Islam as well. What this has to do with the coming ordeal is never really made clear, and in fact, might as well have been a different story about a different person. The adventure story is the second part, and it’s pretty much riveting. If, like me, you grew up on books like Island of the Blue Dolphins or My Side of the Mountain, reading descriptions of the various means Pi uses to stay alive is interesting stuff. Running throughout the story is what must’ve accounted for mountains of zoological research on Martel’s part. Pi’s father is a zookeeper, and he himself becomes a zoologist, so there’s a great deal of in-depth information about the world of animals. It’s all quite interesting, but again, sometimes it gives one the notion of somehow reading two or three books at once.

Martel’s writing is excellent, and Pi’s narrative voice is at once simplistic and intelligent, so the story (once it really gets going) is a joy to read. The line between fantasy and what is conceivably real seems to be balanced at all times. I will say that perhaps Martel likes to hear himself talk just a wee bit, but in the final analysis I guess I liked hearing him talk too. The images conjured up are vivid and sometimes graphic. Pi’s predicament, while fantastical, is told in such a measured tone that if one cannot exactly imagine being in his shoes, one is still extremely invested in the outcome. By the time I reached the final chapters, I had swung from boredom (part I) to anticipation (part II) and was closing in on satisfaction.

And then…the third act. Martel throws the reader a curve ball; a mind trip. Once again it feels like you’re reading a new story, and this time, the end result is disappointing. I’m all for a well-executed twist, but in this case, the ambiguity of it only serves to cheapen the accomplishments of what has come before.  Ultimately, it’s an enjoyable book to read, but it’s a little bit of a bumpy ride, I guess. If the writing itself weren’t so fluid, one might think it was just poor construction, but I think we must assume the shifts are purposeful. The nice thing about ambiguity is that one can choose what to believe in, like Pi himself, who chooses to combine aspects of different beliefs. It’s an accomplished novel; in hindsight, a pleasure to read as well as a thought-provoking journey. 

Samantha’s #CBR4 Review #14: The Scott Pilgrim series, by Bryan Lee O’Malley

I bought my husband Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Boxset (all 6 SP books) for his birthday, and at some point, I decided to just sit down and read them myself. Since they take about 30 minutes apiece, I don’t really feel appropriate counting them all separately (although boy, would that help my cause!) , plus given their episodic nature it’ll just be easier to review them as a whole, so that’s what I’m going to do.

First let me say that I’m not at all a comic book/graphic novel kind of girl. I didn’t really grow up with them (aside from the odd Archie comic here and there) and they’ve just never held that much interest, even as they’ve become much more of a literary genre over time. In reading the Scott Pilgrim series, I have realized that the main reason for this is that they’re just too busy for me, and make me a little ADHD. Attempting to look at both words and pictures and connect the two at the same time is apparently too much for my brain. Does anyone else have that problem?

Anyway, Scott Pilgrim! Scott is an underachieving 24 year old who has no ambitions in life and seems perfectly content to sit around in a studio apartment and freeload off of his gay roommate, Wallace.  He lives in Toronto,  plays bass in an apparently really crappy band (called Sex Bob-Omb) and has recently started “dating” a 17-year-old named Knives Chau. All of this starts to change when he bumps into a girl he’s only previously seen in his dreams. Her name is Ramona Flowers, and she’s  mysterious! And American! Scott is immediately smitten, but if he wants to woo her, in addition to breaking things off with Knives, he will have to fight all of Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes, who have apparently formed some kind of coalition for the purpose of destroying anyone who attempts to date her. Along the way, in addition to his video game-style fights with a motley crew of characters led by evil mastermind Gideon Graves, Scott will have to come to terms with himself, make peace with his past loves, and maybe do a little growing up as well.

These books have a lot going for them. They’re obviously a love song to the city of Toronto, to video games, and to comic books themselves. Additionally, they’re a funny and original take on the standard tropes of coming-of-age, and of love and relationships. In fighting the Seven Evil Exes, Scott and Ramona both have to work through their issues with past relationships in order to arrive at a place where they can make an adult attempt at maintaining the one they are in together. In realizing his feelings for Ramona, Scott has to come to some kind of determination about his own self-worth. He’s a pretty selfish and clueless character, to be honest, and as he moves along, he develops at least a little more depth and understanding, although I have to say that I didn’t find him to be a great deal more redeemable at the end than at the beginning. The secondary characters are generally more enjoyable than our hero; Knives is a fun caricature of a teenaged girl, Sex Bob-Omb’s drummer (and one of Scott’s exes) Kim Pine is biting and sarcastic, and serves, in some ways, as Scott’s conscience. Scott’s roommate, Wallace, is the voice of reason, or at least of practicality. Ramona herself is somehow sympathetic, although I feel as though we get a little too much of her through Scott’s eyes, making her less of a fully-realized character and more an object to be attained.

Mainly, I think it’s the format that I had difficulty enjoying.  Again, associating a brief piece of text with the images around it was somehow hard for me, and I often felt lost trying to keep things connected. Additionally, maybe I’m just not a visual person, but all of O’Malley’s female characters looked nearly identical to me, and I was never quite sure who was talking. In a larger frame it was ok; Knives has black hair, Kim has freckles, Ramona has a distinctive hairstyle, but in any kind of close-up image, they all just look like the same big pair of eyes. I had trouble with some of the male characters, too. I spend a lot of time reading picture books to my daughter, and I don’t have any issues there, so it’s something about the busy formatting here that bugs me. I do feelingly apologize to any and all comic/graphic novel/anime enthusiasts, and I gave it my very best try, but mostly reading these just gave me a headache.  I could definitely appreciate the finer points of the series as a whole, although I would have wished for a most sympathetic main character, and I can totally see why these are so popular. But I think I’ll stick with my overly wordy Victorian novels for the time being, if nobody minds.

Samantha’s #CBR4 review #13: The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

What would happen if Satan came to town? Well, in Moscow, at least, various members of society find themselves either dead or in an insane asylum; a sold out seance at the Variety Theatre exposes the greed and hypocrisy of the upper classes, an entire office finds that they are compelled to break into song every five minutes or so, and there are some exceedingly strange goings-on in a certain apartment building  recently occupied by Mikhail Berlioz, whose death signals the opening strains of the madcap symphony wrought by “Professor Woland” and his merry band, and that’s just for a start. Meanwhile, Ivan Homeless, a poet who is among those committed, meets his neighbor at the asylum, an unnamed “Master” whose life disintegrates after Moscow’s literary critics lambast his opus magnum, a novel about Pontius Pilate. The Master mourns the loss of his beloved mistress, who he believes has forgotten him. She, however, when approached by one of Woland’s henchmen and offered a chance to make her dreams come true, finds herself the hostess at Satan’s ball. If she manages to get through a never-ending night of hobnobbing with a glittering company of evildoers, Margarita will have the opportunity to reunite with her lover. Would you make a deal with the devil for eternal happiness?

Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, published posthumously in 1966, is a completely fascinating and mind-boggling read. I will admit that I spent the entire first half of the novel asking my husband, who’d read it before, when it would start to make any sense. After a while, though, the beautiful language (apologies for not remembering which translation I read), the entertaining characters, and the wildly imaginative story won me over. In the end, while The Master and Margarita is still slightly confusing, it proves itself to be a incredibly constructed study in the dichotomy of human nature, and a biting critique of Soviet society. The story-within-a-story, about the judgement and execution of Jesus Christ from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, is equally fascinating. Bulgakov paints “Yeshua” as merely a kind of free-thinking hippie who manages to run aground of important people, and Pilate himself as a political pawn. He’d rather have hired Yeshua on as a kind of philosophical advisor, but circumstances beyond his control force him to condemn the man to death.

This notion of Pilate as merely human instead of one of history’s most well-known bad guys exemplifies Bulgakov’s theme of good and evil, but the more fascinating example is Woland himself. Throughout the novel, there is no real instance of him being responsible for any evil-doing; rather, it is his henchman who cause all the trouble. There is a point at which Woland refers to himself as a “department,” suggesting that (much like Pilate) he, and by extension his opposition, are merely doing a job that may or may not reflect on any personal ideal. His treatment of Margarita and her Master, in fact, suggests that he is more a sympathetic soul than anything else. I think that one could persuasively argue that Woland, far from being the villain of the story, is in fact its hero. He and his compatriots come to Moscow to punish the guilty and enact justice for those who have been treated unfairly. That their means are, well, devilish may give the lie to their ends, but that doesn’t necessarily appear to be what Bulgakov wants us to believe. His obvious contempt for the bureaucratic society he is satirizing comes through at every turn. That the novel was heavily censored in Russia upon its original release may serve to prove his point.

Russian novelists, regardless of what century they were writing in, seem to be a wordy bunch. Bulgakov is no exception here, but unlike some of his predecessors, I think the events of The Master and Margarita keep the novel moving along at a good pace. There’s something for everyone here: politics, poetry, romance, humor, drama, sex, violence…  If one can avoiding losing patience with the early chapters, which seem rather disjointed and haphazard,  this is a truly imaginative and fantastical novel; a little confusing, but ultimately worthwhile.

 

 

Samantha’s #CBR4 review #12: Busy Monsters, by William Giraldi

I have been struggling to write a review of this book for nearly a month now. I think I read about it in the NYT Book Review a while back, and thought it sounded entertaining, and I don’t really read enough contemporary fiction, so I figured I’d give it a shot. And hey! I wasn’t really disappointed. It was quite entertaining, and interesting from a narrative perspective. I don’t really understand why I’m having so much trouble writing about it. I think it’s the synopsis that’s tripping me up. But, here we go anyway. I need to move on from this.

Charlie Homar writes a weekly “memoir” column for a nationally-read publication. You know the kind of thing, clever anecdotes about the writer’s life that may or may not be entirely true? In Charlie’s case, we are left to determine whether truth really is stranger than fiction. It all starts out with Charlie’s plan to kill his fiancee’s crazy and threatening ex-boyfriend, and things get really bizarre when said fiancee, Gillian, decides to run out on Charlie in order to pursue a lifelong dream of finding and capturing a giant squid. What follows are a series of adventures through which Charlie hopes (inexplicably, in some cases) to win back Gillian’s love.  He spends time in jail after taking potshots at Gillian’s boat, goes into the Canadian wilderness to find Sasquatch, breaks up an alien abduction scam, and receives advice of varying validity from a motley cast of characters, all while agonizing about his life, love,  and manhood. As you might imagine, he also generally makes a mess of everything.

The novel, written by William Giraldi, is interesting in its style: it’s written in first person, and structure-wise, every chapter is essentially one of Charlie’s weekly columns, with each building on the previous episodes. Charlie’s voice is pretentious, verbose, occasionally humorous, and more than a little obnoxious, but somehow still compelling. In thinking about it, it may be that he’s actually a pretty static character: I’m not sure what, if anything, he learns from his experiences (he actually completely dismisses the best advice he receives along the way), but that doesn’t actually make the novel any less entertaining. The ridiculousness of Charlie’s exploits, and his perspective on them, is truly unique. The voice and character of Charlie are so consistent throughout that it will be interesting to see what Giraldi does next, just to see how much it differs from Busy Monsters.
I said that I wasn’t sure if Charlie learned anything as a result of his adventures, but that may not be exactly true. He starts out as a rather unrealistic, starry-eyed romantic, and I suppose that he does eventually come around to tempering that with a bit of practicality here or there.  The story is, in many ways, about what it means to be a man, and thanks to some poignant moments relating to Charlie’s parents, I do think that some sense starts to creep in at some point. Still, the overblown romance and floridity (is that a word) of Charlie’s nature are not quashed completely, and whether or not we believe everything he’s told us, we are still rooting for an appropriately sappy ending. Does he give it to us? You’ll just have to read and find out.

 

Samantha’s #CBR4 review #11: Pink Smog, by Francesca Lia Block

WEETZIE BAAAAAAT. If you consider yourself a fan of YA fiction and have never read any Francesca Lia Block, you need to head to your local library immediately. I highly recommend the Weetzie Bat books in particular. They are beautiful and magical, but more importantly they touch upon serious, “grown-up” issues that are sometimes (although less so in recent years, I gather) avoided in literature for younger people. The first novel in the series, Weetzie Bat, was originally published in 1989, and deals with a young girl growing up and looking for love in Los Angeles, along with her best friend, Dirk, who is gay. As the series progresses, Weetzie’s non-traditional family grows to include children, who feature prominently in some of the subsequent novels. Francesca Lia Block’s imaginative, fluid language treats love, magic, and friendship with the same gravity and care as homosexuality, AIDS, anorexia,  and immigration. Her books are delicious and fanciful: literary ice cream sundaes.

Pink Smog is the seventh novel to feature Weetzie and company, and it is a prequel, of sorts. The narrative takes place when Weetzie is thirteen years old, and it shows us how young Louise Bat becomes the girl we will meet a few years later in Weetzie Bat. Louise’s parents, Charlie and Brandy-Lynn, have been drinking too much and fighting for years, but this time Charlie leaves for good. Suddenly, in addition to navigating the dangerous waters of junior high school, Louise/Weetzie has to take care of herself and her mother, deal with mysterious and potentially dangerous new neighbors, and try to put together the pieces of a magical scavenger hunt. Along the way, she finds the strength to stand up to the class bullies and her own fears and insecurities. She also manages to make some friends who are dealing with even greater problems.

I’ve always struggled to explain Francesca Lia Block to people. I was assigned Weetzie Bat for a children’s lit class years ago, and I just fell head over heels in love on the very first page. Her writing is just magical; I don’t know how else to put it. It’s all very rose-colored glasses in some ways, because that’s who Weetzie is, but despite that outlook, Block never paints over the ugly stuff. She just makes love and magic more powerful, and when you’re immersed in her world, it’s hard to hold on to whatever cynicism you might possess. I know other fans who have lost interest in the Weetzie Bat books as the characters (and Block herself) have grown older; her voice has changed subtly. That is the only problem I really had with Pink Smog, was that the events of the novel were earlier than all the others, but the level of maturity of the narration, which is essentially from Weetzie’s point of view, was obviously higher than that of Weetzie Bat. It’s a small complaint, though, and everything else remains the same. Understanding more of Weetzie’s story is like learning something you never knew about an old friend. It explains things you were never sure about, and makes you love that friend even more.

I have been known to just shove Dangerous Angels (a collective of the first five novels) into people’s hands. At least one such person went on to organize readings of the novels with her college friends. One of the things I can’t wait for in watching my daughter grow up is the day when I can finally share Weetzie with her. If you believe in magic, you need to meet Miss Weetzie. You will love her.

 

Samantha’s #CBR4 Review #10: Messy, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

The Fug Girls are back! Messy is the follow-up to last year’s Spoiled, and features the return of the Berlin clan: Molly, Brooke, and Brick, along with their friends (and frenemies) for more Hollywood fun. In the first installment, Molly learns she is the daughter of mega-superstar Brick Berlin, and must not only adjust to a new school and a new family, but also new-found fame as well.  This time around, the action focuses on Molly’s half-sister, Brooke (as it should be, no doubt!) and her attempts to become Hollywood’s newest It Girl, along with Max McCormack, Molly’s new best friend, who nearly stole the show last time around. As with Spoiled, the plot here isn’t going to surprise anyone who’s ever read a book ever, but that’s not really the point; the fresh, funny style of the Fug Girls makes everything worthwhile.

Max wants to become a writer. Specifically, she’s focusing on a program at NYU, but is A. suffering from major writer’s block, and B. lacks the necessary funds. This is why she answers a Craigslist ad to be a ghost writer for a “Hollywood It Girl’s” blog. She’s dismayed when the It Girl in question turns out to be Brooke Berlin (they’ve hated each other since grade school), but the opportunity to write and make a decent wage doing it convinces her to become Brooke’s blogger. Soon she’s following Brooke to Hollywood bashes and casting calls, and the blog is a huge success. Brooke finds herself cast as Nancy Drew, the teenaged role of the year, and everything’s looking up for everyone…until it’s not. Both girls start to realize that they want to be credited for being themselves instead of each other, and find themselves clashing over Brooke’s cute co-star Brady, who’s caught up in their multiple-personality game.

Again, it’s not a new plot, but it’s an effective one, and the characters Cocks and Morgan have created are just so much fun. Max was my favorite character from Spoiled, so it was great to see her have a moment in the sun here. The cultural references and the general snark are in full effect thanks to the focus on Max, since she is something of an outsider in a world full of spray-on tanned starlets.  Brooke gets plenty of character development as well, showing us a little more depth and intelligence, if not humility. If there’s a flaw to be mentioned, it’s that Molly gets short shrift this time around, only showing up to provide moral support to Max, or to mediate between Max and Brooke.

These books are a quick, fun read, and while you’ll have a little bit more of a clue if you read Spoiled first, I like that they’re not precisely a series; I like my reading low-commitment. It’ll be interesting to see how and if the Girls proceed with these characters, since most of them will be graduating from high school soon, and presumably going on to bigger and better things. Perhaps there will again be a focus on Max, who I think is slightly younger than the Berlin sisters. Either way, if Cocks and Morgan produce another installment, I will totally read it. And you should too!

Samantha’s #CBR4 review #9: Codex, by Lev Grossman

These days Lev Grossman is known for his novel, The Magicians, and its follow-up, The Magician King, which are apparently a more real-worldish Harry Potter kind of thing. Prior to those books, Grossman wrote Codex, which is your standard “ordinary person becomes involved in extraordinary dealings” sort of story. I think that plot is some kind of fantasy writers’ rite of passage; everyone’s got one. The key to succeeding with it is to make the extraordinary world interesting and/or recognizable to your readership. Grossman does fine with that side of things, but there are other issues at play in Codex that may just not sit well with me personally. I’ll explain.

Edward Wozny is a young, up-and-coming banker. When we meet him, he is at the start of a two-week vacation, an interim period between the job in New York that he just left, and the fancy new job awaiting him in London. During this “vacation,” he has been assigned to catalogue a valuable library for some particularly wealthy clients, the Duke and Duchess of Bowmry. Naturally, this is an odd request, given that he is a banker, and of course, there is more to the story. Edward soon goes down a rabbit hole involving a search for a 14th century manuscript (the titular Codex) that may or may not exist, a power struggle between the Duke and Duchess, and a strange, alternate-reality computer game called MOMUS. Along the way, he enlists the help of Margaret Napier, a medievalist, whose interest in the Codex may actually be greater than his own.

Everyone loves adventure stories about old books, manuscripts, or other mysterious artifacts, right? Probably everyone except the people who actually work with such items for a living. I happen to be such a one; specifically, I’m even a rare book cataloguer. Now, I’m not going to pick the novel apart from a librarian’s standpoint; for the most part, Grossman does pretty well with that side of things. He does manage to make research somewhat exciting, but he neither glamorizes nor over-stereotypes librarians or archives, so for that I give him credit. There are a few issues (mainly, the fact that someone working on a PhD in medieval literature would also be highly skilled in training-intensive fields like cataloging and book conservation), but overall, Codex is more The Name of the Rose than The Da Vinci Code in terms of staying realistic.

The inclusion of the computer game was probably partly an attempt at current cultural relevance, and is slightly out-of-place, particularly when the plot contrives to connect MOMUS to Edward’s quest for the book. I think it’s also an attempt to provide Edward with some character development in that he was once a student of literature himself (and would therefore have been interested in adventure games and medieval codexes) before he decided to sell his soul and become a banker. Although Grossman reminds us frequently that this is the case, he would have been better served to make it clear via the character himself, and less a part of the narration. As it is, the game is pretty much just a glorified plot point on which Grossman spends way too much time and effort. It’s still kind of interesting and fun to read, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not it should have gone into a different book.

The biggest issue of the novel, for me, is in the flow of events. I think I was halfway through the book and still wondering when pieces of the puzzle were going to start coming together, and when they finally did, it was totally abrupt. I’m usually pretty good at connecting the dots, but I think that’s often because writers are good at pointing their reader toward connections. In this case, Grossman just sort of plopped down a few facts and figures, and then unceremoniously said “Oh, by the way, here’s how those add up.” After that, things become rushed and unclear, to the point that I had to go back and read what was essentially the climax of the story multiple times because I thought I had missed something. Essentially, the entire novel is a build-up, which would be fine if the payoff were a little bit more exciting. I think Mr. Grossman became too involved with the fine details of his story to the detriment of the overall arc. That fact doesn’t make Codex unreadable, it just makes it really disappointing. Whether or not you happen to be a rare book librarian.

Samantha’s #CBR4 review #7: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

So I gather that Mr. Murakami is a big deal in the world of novelists, yes? I am sort of a curmudgeon who doesn’t read a whole lot of new fiction, so forgive my ignorance. As a newish runner and total running addict, though, I’ve heard a lot about Murakami’s memoir, in which he discusses his training regimen, his annual marathon habit, and life in general. I came into it looking for some light reading and maybe some inspiration. I’d say that I came away one for two, which isn’t a bad record, all things considered.

What I Talk About… is a series of essays loosely following the author as he prepares for the 2005 NYC Marathon. It’s interspersed with more recent reflections as well, and plenty of background on how he got into running (and writing novels) in the first place. There’s quite a bit of talk about running, but more than anything, this book is simply about how Murakami looks at the world. What truly fascinated me was his narrative voice. If it’s the same as he uses in his novels, I’ll definitely check them out at some point. He’s an amazing pragmatist. I find it hard to believe that anyone could really be that matter-of-fact about life, other people, one’s own self, death, but that seems to be the case here. Murakami looks unflinchingly at his successes and failures, his shortcomings and strengths. He talks about places he’s been, races he’s run, people he’s met, all in the same even, honest tone.  Interestingly enough, I think the area in which that tone does the most damage is with regard to the subject of running. If you’re looking for ideas or information on training in a more narrative setting, I think this book will disappoint you. While clearly a prolific runner, Murakami has definitely done things his own way, and I don’t think his style of training would suit everyone.

Basically, he just gets out there and runs. A lot. It’s both inspiring and frustrating to listen to his descriptions of his daily schedule: as a writer, he works hard and often, but he also has an extremely flexible lifestyle that enables him to run for an hour every day, six days a week. Makes me want to get out there and start writing books, I tell you. (Um, no. The running for an hour every day, yes. The writing books, no.) And while he runs, he reflects. I think that’s something a lot of runners will tell you they enjoy about running is the mental break it affords. In Murakami’s case, he doesn’t seem to indicate that he necessarily gets anything concrete out of the time in terms of, say, his writing, but it does seem to inform his worldview in terms of what he has learned from the discipline and strength needed to train and run a marathon every year for 20+ years.

I’d imagine plenty of people are put off by the fact that this is ostensibly a book about running. Ultimately, though, that’s not how I’d describe it. I think it’s a book about life and death. Murakami spends a lot of time talking about how running was when he was younger, and how it is now that he’s older. He focuses a great deal on the fact that he is aging and losing strength and speed, and a lot on how someday he will die. All of this comes through in his usual straightforward tone, but it seems to me that you don’t dwell on such subjects at such length unless it’s something you’re working to come to terms with. Which, of course, is probably the only truly unifying human experience. So really, What I Talk About… is actually a book about being a human being. It just happens to come through the lens of also being a runner.

Samantha’s #CBR4 Review #6: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris

I don’t know about you, but I love all the behind-the-scenes details of the film-making industry. I don’t necessarily mean the bloopers and deleted scenes you get on the DVD, but rather the nitty-gritty of how the movie went from an idea to the images on the screen. The changes, the deals, the failures and successes … it’s all so interesting. I also like thinking about movies in a greater context; where they stand in the history of film and in the broader narrative of society. Well, if you get into that stuff too, then do I have a book for you!

Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution follows five movies from their inceptions to their “highlight,” the 1968 Academy Awards. The five films in question are Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. The main argument being put forward is that these five films exemplify Hollywood at a crossroads between road-show movies, old-style cinematography, censorship, and social neutrality; and the worldly influences of European film, new creative ideas, and a greater social awareness. In truth, each film is characterized by elements of both Old and New Hollywood (ok, except maybe Doctor Doolittle), but Harris makes a valid point in showcasing the ways in which their differences define them, and went on to define movie-making in the decades to come.

This is a fascinating book. I have to admit that as of this writing, I have actually only seen one of the five (that being Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), but in the course of a movie-viewing project I’m working on I’ll pick up a few, and I plan on watching at least four of them in the near future. A friend forced me to promise I’d never watch Doctor Doolittle. Anyway. Harris has compiled the “true Hollywood story” of each of these movies, and they’re all completely engaging. It’s so interesting to learn about how some of the iconic names and titles of today’s landscape got there. Mike Nichols was a stand-up comedian turned stage director whose first film credit was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Warren Beatty was a “difficult” actor, more known for his real-life exploits with women than for his desire to produce and eventually direct movies. Dustin Hoffman couldn’t catch a break to save his life, and went through the entire production of The Graduate believing that he was completely the wrong guy for the role. There’s also the stories of how the ideas changed hands, struggled to find directors or stars or distribution,  went disastrously over-budget, and were either critical or public failures upon release. In particular, too, the story of Sidney Poitier’s struggles as a trailblazer for actors of color is a really fascinating read. I’m pretty sure you could get an entire book out of his experiences. Also of note is the brief focus on the filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was the last film in which Spencer Tracy appeared; the film wrapped two weeks before he died.

The ways in which these movies were influenced by what had come before, by the social and political climate in which they were created, and (mostly) by the workings of the industry and the monetary hopes of their creators is at once more simple and more complicated than one might expect. In many ways, movies are perhaps even less culturally relevant by design than we think, and it is mostly the public lens through which we view them that makes them appear important. When you consider that a script may have been written several years before it finally makes it to the screen, the point is driven home. Particularly in the volatile atmosphere of the 1960s in America, for some movies, their relevance happened by sheer accident; events that could not have been predicted lent a color or deeper meaning to a film released at the same time for good or ill. By expanding his focus to include the outside factors that helped to shape these five movies, Harris gives one a real sense of the place of film in our culture. It’s a complex position, both influential and reflective by turns.

The only complaint I have about Pictures at a Revolution is that the chronology can be difficult to follow at times. Often the same people are involved, and the chapters are laid out so as to stitch the five movies together, so there were times when I had to check back a paragraph or two in order to understand that I was now reading about a different movie. All in all, though, a really great read. If you’re interested in movies at all, I would highly recommend it, although it’s another one that will expand your Netflix queue out of control. So many movies, so little time!  When I grow up, maybe I’ll finally convince people to just let me watch (and read about) movies for a living.  Someday…

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